Weekend update

Weekend update

The House of Representatives and the Senate both will be in session on Capitol Hill this coming week, Of note from an FEHBP perspective is that Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing for the President’s nominee for OPM Inspection General, Craig E. Leen, for Tuesday June 2 at 2:30 pm. Mr. Leen currently is Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) at the U.S. Department of Labor. The FEHBlog plans to tune in.

The Supreme Court heads into the home stretch of its October 2019 term tomorrow. The Court has 25 decisions left to issue before adjourning for the summer according to the Scotusblog.

OPM released more COVID-19 guidance last Friday. This guidance concerns preparedness for returning to OPM facilities.

Fierce Healthcare brings us up to date on COVID-19 testing at home options. The latest product receiving FDA approval is offered by Quest Diagnostics a/k/a Quest Labs.

The FEHBlog ran across on Twitter today this May 24 column from Reason senior editor Jacob Sillum.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the current “best estimate” for the fatality rate among Americans with COVID-19 symptoms is 0.4 percent. The CDC also estimates that 35 percent of people infected by the COVID-19 virus never develop symptoms. Those numbers imply that the virus kills less than 0.3 percent of people infected by it.

The FEHBlog also found this reassuring (at least to the FEHBlog) Science News article on COVID-19 mutations.

[C]oronavirus mutations are guaranteed to pop up over the coming months — and experts will continue to track them. “The data will tell us whether we need to worry, and in what way we need to worry,” [Louise] Moncla[, an evolutionary epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle] says. “Everyone should take a deep breath and realize that this is exactly what we’ve always expected to happen, and we don’t necessarily need to be concerned.”

Person using a laptop

Thursday Miscellany

A few posts ago, the FEHBlog favorably mentioned the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. “Researchers hope transfusions of antibody-rich plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients can help neutralize the coronavirus in patients who are sick.” Today the Wall Street Journal reports that

A [Phase 2] study of thousands of Covid-19 patients who received blood plasma transfusions from recovered patients indicates the experimental therapy appears to be safe, paving the way for future studies and clinical trials.

A team of researchers at Mayo Clinic, Michigan State University and Johns Hopkins University examined health outcomes of 5,000 hospitalized patients around the U.S. who received convalescent plasma treatment, and found the transfusions resulted in few serious side effects and there wasn’t an excessive mortality rate.

Let’s go.

In other upbeat news, the Wall Street Journal reports that “More patients are turning to mail or courier to get their prescription drugs during coronavirus lockdowns, a shift from the traditional visit with a pharmacist that is expected to endure after the pandemic subsides.” Mail order delivery of maintenance medications is known to create a cost savings for health plans and their members.

Health Payer Intelligence discusses a fascinating PriceWaterHouseCoopers healthcare consumer survey conducted during the great hunkering down. The survey’s “results signal that US businesses could play an even bigger role in protecting the health of their workers, that the health system likely will make more room for telehealth and other forms of virtual care, and that the American consumer may take a more active role in managing health and participating in a system that is being remade.”

In other news —

  • The FEHBlog ran across this American Medical Association website of its COVID-19 resources.
  • Fierce Healthcare calls to our attention the Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2020. “Primary care docs brought in about $243,000, up 2.5% from $237,000 reported a year earlier. Specialists earned about $346,000 on average, up 1.5% from the $341,000 they made a year earlier.”
  • OPM issued additional COVID-19 guidance to federal agencies today. It’s not FEHBP related.

Monday Mishmash

Today, the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services released its proposed rule describing changes to its Medicare Part A prospective payment system (“PPS”) changes for the federal fiscal year beginning October 1, 2020. This PPS applies to acute and long term inpatient care. Fierce Healthcare explains that the changes represent “an approximately 1.6% increase to inpatient hospital stay payments” that will add about $2.1 billion to Medicare spending next fiscal year.

A friend of the FEHBlog recommended a book called “Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World” written by former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. It seems like a perfect read for the great hunkering down. The FEHBlog will let you know.

In other news:

  • Fierce Healthcare also discusses how CVS Health has adapted its specialty pharmacy to the COVID-19 emergency. According to the article, CVS Specialty is making greater use of digital tools, e.g., “a 30% increase in March alone in encounter volume through CVS Specialty’s secure messaging tool, which allows [their] pharmacists to text members directly to discuss their medications.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Atul Gawande is in advanced discussions to step down as chief executive and take on a less operational role as chairman of Haven, the health-care venture backed by Amazon.com Inc., Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and JPMorgan Chase JPM , according to people with knowledge of the matter.” Haven was the big new thing is 2018 when Dr. Gawande came aboard.
  • The HHS Office of Inspector General announced the availability of two “toolkits and the accompanying code can be used to analyze claims data for prescription drugs and identify patients who may be misusing or abusing prescription opioids and may be in need of additional case management or other followup. These toolkits and accompanying code can also be used to answer research questions about opioid utilization.”

Weekend update

Happy Mother’s Day.

Just like last week, the Senate will be in session this week while the House continues to fully hunker down. The Hill discusses five factors influencing when the House will return to Capitol Hill. It’s funny that the article does not list the Presidential election as a sixth factor. (Even the FEHBlog is entitled to have an occasional “DJT” moment. Lo siento.)

The FEHBlog forgot last Thursday to provide a link to the Senate Health Education Labor and Pension Committees “shark tank” on new tests for COVID-19. Here you go. This Committee will be holding a hearing on how to pull out of the great hunkering down on Tuesday.

For the past two months, the FEHBlog has been tracking a simplified infection fatality rate (IFR) for COVID-19 based on the CDC’s statistics. The FEHBlog is not an epidimeologist but he figured things would be looking up if the rate plateaued. The FEHBlog’s statistics do show the IFR increase slowing down over the past month. In any event, here’s a new Health Affairs article on the COVID-19 IFR for your information.

CIGNA’s PBM Express Scripts has created a program called ParachuteRX which offers reasonably priced prescription drugs to the uninsured. Cool.

The FEHBlog has been a fan of genetics-based personalized medicine. It therefore was sobering for the FEHBlog to read in the Wall Street Journal that the popular focus on personalized medicine has detracted from public health efforts. The article explains that

the first national initiative launched to try to treat today’s severely ill patients is the National Covid-19 Convalescent Plasma Project. The project originated with a small nucleus of people who, it turns out, have been prominent critics of personalized medicine over the years, including Arturo Casadevall of Johns Hopkins University, Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic and Nigel Paneth of Michigan State University.

The idea of using antibody-rich plasma from recovered patients to try to neutralize a virus in those who are ill was first used more than 100 years ago. The project is designed to buy time and save lives until a vaccine can be developed and deployed or more targeted therapies can be identified and tested. It also offers a real-world test case for ideas that had largely been confined to academic journals and debates between scientists.

Indeed the FEHBlog learned in the Great Influenza book that small scale efforts to use this antibody approach found success in the 1918-19 pandemic. It’s encouraging to read that a large scale effort is underway now. In the aftermath of the great hunkering down, a Goldilocks compromise must be reached between personalized medicine and public health efforts.

Finally, Health IT Security does a good job putting the government’s COVID-19 related flexibilities with regard to enforcing the HIPAA Privacy Rule into focus.

Interesting Ideas

Health Payer Intelligence reports that CIGNA and SCAN Health Plan are teaming up to reach out to Medicare Advantage members in an effort to help them with senior loneliness during the great hunkering. SCAN’s “employees are calling on seniors, starting with the most at-risk and isolated. During their birthday and welcome calls, SCAN’s Senior Advocates—individuals who are both members and SCAN Health Plan employees—listen for potential social determinants of health needs.” What a great approach for FEHB plans to follow.

STATNews discusses the value of using chest CT scans to reliably reliably supplement other forms of COVID-19 testing in our country.

STATNews also has developed a new electronic dashboard to gauge the readiness of rural counties in the U.S. to deal with the COVID-19 emergency or other pandemics. The developers are seeking public comment on the dashboard. This dashboard should have benefits beyond the current emergency.

Healthcare Dive reports that

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to automate generation and transmission of COVID-19 case reports to deliver data put in provider EHRs directly to public health agencies.

For providers that don’t have EHRs with the ability to electronically send case reports, CDC is creating a FHIR-based app [called eCR Now] to connect COVID-19 electronic case reporting (eCR) to existing health IT infrastructure to confirm cases and route the data to appropriate end users. The goal is to give public health officials a more accurate, timely picture of the pandemic.

The FEHBlog is quite a fan of the FHIR API.

This is the time of the year when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hold events that allow citizens to safely dispose of unused prescription drugs. Obviously these events are not being held this April. The DEA has creates a website on safe householder disposal of unused prescription drugs. It’s good information for health plans to share with members.

Person using a laptop

Thursday Miscellany

As the FEHBlog discussed COVID-19 death rates yesterday, it’s only meet and right to post STAT’s story which seeks to put COVID-19 death projections into perspective.

On the flip side, STAT reports on Pfizer’s decision to accelerate by three months human testing on a potential treatment for COVID-19 and local WTOP news reports on COVID-19 vaccine development efforts by a company in the Maryland suburbs of D.C., Novovax. Best of luck.

Healthleaders Media discusses a Guidehouse study finding

A major factor hampering the financial situation for rural providers is the migration of patients to care options outside of the community, with over 75% of patients bypassing local hospitals to receive care elsewhere. These levels are much higher compared to the outmigration patterns of suburban and urban patients.

More than 350 rural hospitals [one in four], accounting for $8.3 billion in total patient revenue, are at the greatest financial risk of closure, according to Guidehouse. The five states most likely to be impacted by hospital closures include Tennessee, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, and Kansas, according to the analysis.

Guidehouse adds that “Of these hospitals, 81%, or 287 hospitals, are considered highly essential to the health and economic well-being of their communities.” What is really troubling about this study is that it was conducted before the COVID-19 emergency which must be exacerbating these financial problems.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services today issued additional guidance loosening the regulatory reins on healthcare providers so that “so that hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities can boost their frontline medical staffs” necessary to treat COVID-19 patients and others. Among other steps,

Doctors can now directly care for patients at rural hospitals, across state lines if necessary, via phone, radio, or online communication, without having to be physically present. Remotely located physicians, coordinating with nurse practitioners at rural facilities, will provide staffs at such facilities additional flexibility to meet the needs of their patients.

Similarly, the HHS Office for Civil Rights which enforces the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules promised not to impose HIPAA penalties on good faith rule violations that occur at COVID-19 testing sites.

Drug Channels offers an interesting take on the CMS actuary’s recent healthcare spending projections for the U.S. Adam Fein observes that ” The coronavirus is upending our healthcare system and putting enormous pressure on hospitals. Despite increased costs of treatment, I expect that spending [that CMS estimated before the COVID-19 emergency] will be lower than the CMS projections.”

On the technology front, the federal government’s cybersecurity authorities released a detailed alert on a variety of cyberscams that have arisen during the COVID-19 emergency.

Friday Stats and More

The number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow along with the COVID-19 death rate (number of deaths over number of cases per the CDC). The FEHBlog’s statistics are drawn from the CDC’s now daily Cases in United States Summary.

Person to Person31013264325
Total Cases10,44285,356239,279
Total Deaths 15012465442
Death Rate1.44%1.46%2.27%

For context, the CDC’s latest Fluview “estimates that so far this season there have been at least 39 million flu illnesses, 400,000 hospitalizations and 24,000 deaths from flu.” That represents a death rate of less than one tenth of one percent (0.06%). Fortunately this flu season appears to be subsiding. The CDC additionally “estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9 million – 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.”

The FEHBlog has wondered where is the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. He now appreciates the fact that we haven’t made it half way through the tunnel. Hang in there.

Not surprisingly but regrettably Govexec.com reports that thousands of federal employees have contracted COVID-19 and attempts to provide a numerical breakdown by agency.

In more upbeat news, MedCity News informs us that

The Food and Drug Administration has given an emergency use authorization to a test for Covid-19 that detects whether a person is infected through the use of antibodies. The FDA granted the authorization to Research Triangle Park, North Carolina-based Cellex, for the qSARS-CoV-2 IgG/IgM Rapid Test, according to a letter from FDA chief scientist Denise Hinton, sent Wednesday to Cellex CEO James Li. The test is designed to produce results in 15-20 minutes.

The advantage of antibody tests is that they not only are less likely to produce false-negative results, but can also be used to detect past infections, meaning that they can be used to determine if a patient without symptoms has previously had Covid-19 and could thus be immune to it. It could also be used to indicate stage of infection and estimate time since exposure. Nevertheless, according to the primer, a limitation to antibody testing is that the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is slow.

The Labor Department continues to add to its list of now 78 FAQs on the FFCRA’s COVID-19 paid sick leave law which took effect on April 1 while the U.S. Supreme Court cancelled its April oral arguments which would have occurred at the end of this month.

Thursday Thoughts

Fedweek reports that

The largest FEHB carrier, Blue Cross-Blue Shield, has loosened several policies, for those diagnosed with COVID-19, the respiratory condition caused by the COVID-19 virus including waiving:

prior authorization requirements for diagnostic tests and for covered services that are “medically necessary and consistent with CDC guidance”;

any copays or deductibles for diagnostic tests or treatment under that same standard;

early medication refill limits on 30-day prescription maintenance medications and cost sharing for prescriptions for up to a 14-day supply; and

copays for telehealth services related to COVID-19.

The FEHBlog was pleased to see that FEP is waiving telehealth cost sharing related to COVID-19. OPM’s carrier letter mentioned in yesterday’s post overlooked telehealth which is an important tool to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. If your plan offers a telehealth benefit, it is important to pre-register for that benefit before you need to use it. The FEHBlog found his plan’s pre-registration program to be quite efficient.

You will find that FEHBP plans prominently have links to their special COVID-19 coverage features on their websites.

The Wall Street Journal has put its helpful COVID-19 update website outside its general website paywall.

In other news,

  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced earlier this week “the Part D Senior Savings Model, a voluntary model that enables participating Part D enhanced plans to lower Medicare beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket costs for insulin to a maximum $35 copay per thirty-day supply throughout the benefit year. Beneficiaries who take insulin and enroll in a plan participating in the model should save an average of $446 in annual out-of-pocket costs for insulin, or over 66 percent, relative to their average cost-sharing for insulin today.” This program will launch next year. Time will tell whether the prescription benefit plan can extend this discount to FEHBP and other commercial health plans.
  • The National Cancer Institute released the Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer. The report presents good news
    • Overall cancer incidence rates are leveling off among males and increasing slightly among females.These trends reflect population changes in cancer risk factors, screening test use, diagnostic practices, and treatment advances. 
    • This year’s Special Section focused on progress toward select Healthy People 2020 objectives related to four common cancers (lung, colorectal, female breast, and prostate). The Healthy People 2020 target death rate (161.4 deaths per 100,000 persons) for all cancers combined was met overall and in most sociodemographic groups.
    • During 2007-2017, cancer death rates decreased 15% overall, and the percent improvement target (-10%) was met in many sociodemographic groups.
    • Many of the Healthy People 2020 objectives for death rates, cancer screening, and major risk factors related to lung, colorectal, female breast, and prostate cancer were met.
  • Becker’s Hospital Review provides an overview of seven key dates of the HHS interoperability rule released earlier this week.
  • Healthcare Dive discusses the five additional healthcare apps that CVS/caremark has added to its curated app “formulary” for the benefit of plan sponsors. “Livongo Health, Hinge Health, Hello Heart, Torchlight and Whil are now available for CVS’ PBM clients to use, in addition to Sleepio, a personalized digital sleep program and the first participating program when the service launched in 2019.”


OPM now has a prominent page on its website that gathers together the agency’s COVID 19 guidance. Just in time for a group of Democrat Senators to criticize that guidance as Govexec reports. In salient point the Senators state that

OPM work with health insurance providers to ensure that federal employees can affordably access the preventive care and treatment they may need as a result of COVID 19.

Here are today’s COVID 19 statistics for our country from the Centers for Disease Control

Person-to-person spread18
Under Investigation110
Total cases164

Here’s a link to the CDC’s latest statistics for another coronavirus, the flu.

  • Pneumonia and influenza mortality has been low [this flu season], but 136 influenza-associated deaths in children have been reported so far this season. This number is higher for the same time period than in every season since reporting began in 2004-05, except for the 2009 pandemic.
  • CDC estimates that so far this season there have been at least 34 million flu illnesses, 350,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths from flu.

Modern Healthcare discusses an interesting Humana social determinants of health program in the Medicare Advantage program. The program kicked off this month with Oschner Health in New Orleans. The FEHB Act and the Internal Revenue Code don’t allow FEHBP plans to copy this program but they can take steps to emulate it, in the FEHBlog’s view.

The Boston Globe’s StatNews provides an interesting overview of the state of the biosimilar drug market in our country. Biosimilars are the specialty drug equivalent of generic drugs. Congress opened the door to biosimilar development in the Affordable Care Act. Biosimilars are poised to create a substantial amount of drug cost savings over the next five years according to the article.

Midweek update

The Wall Street Journal recently published a story titled “How the Drug Lobby Lost its Mojo in Washington.” The story also is available on the Journal’s listener friendly podcast. The upshot of the story is that the bipartisan effort to enact a drug pricing law may have legs as they say on Capitol Hill.

“In the past PhRMA had a reputation for rolling the tanks against every proposal irrespective of industry impact,” says PhRMA Chief Executive Officer Stephen Ubl. “We are now taking a more proactive approach of coming to the table to offer policy makers solutions that would address patient affordability challenges.”

PhRMA’s Mr. Ubl says the drug industry could be open to a deal that combines elements of bills from Mr. Grassley, Mrs. Pelosi and House Republicans, saying there “are provisions in all three bills that have bipartisan support and could meaningfully improve affordability for patients without including price controls.” 

In the no good deed goes unpunished department, the Pharmacy Times reports that

Four FDA-approved products that face no competition may increase health care spending by as much as $20.25 billion, according to a new analysis by Vizient Inc.1

The report focused on the Unapproved Drug Initiative (UDI) and its unintended effects on the market. The UDI was an FDA mandate enacted in 2006 that required unapproved drugs in use prior to FDA review of safety and efficacy to be either approved or removed from the market. Once a previously unapproved drug receives FDA approval, the manufacturers of other unapproved versions are asked to remove their products from the market.1

Although the goal of the UDI was to remove potentially dangerous medications from the market, the report authors noted that most of the products are chemically well-defined, reuqire no research and development, and are widely used in health care settings.1

The researchers used the wholesale acquisition cost (WAC) for all calculations and then estimated and used IQVIA data for all US health care product units purchased.1

According to the authors, the UDI has resulted in $2.66 billion in increased costs already incurred, $8.75 billion in estimated cossts awaiting the UDI decision, and $17.59 billion in remaining exclusivity estimated costs.1

Hokey smokes, that’s a big bowl of wrong.

The FEHBlog who is not much of a world traveler was aware of the State Department’s international travel advisories. Today he learned about the Center for Disease Control’s travel health notices. It’s important to check both lists if you plan to travel internationally.

In the healthcare provider competition department, Fierce Healthcare reports that

The Urgent Care Association released its 2019 benchmarking report that showed the total number of centers had reached 9,616 as of November 2019, a 9.6% jump from the previous year.

The number of centers has increased steadily each year from 2013, when the total number of urgent care centers was 6,100. Both urgent care centers and retail clinics have continued to grow across the U.S. as patients look for convenience and affordability, creating competition with traditional hospital and physician practice services.

In the FEHBlog’s view, convenient access to care is great as long as the primary care provider is kept in the loop.

In the good public health news department, the Department of Health and Human Services announced today that

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) [has] awarded approximately $117 million to expand access to HIV care, treatment, medication, and prevention services. This investment is a critical component of the Administration’s Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America (EHE) initiative, which aims to reduce the number of new HIV infections in the United States by 90 percent by 2030.

The EHE initiative and today’s awards focus on 48 counties, Washington, D.C., and San Juan, Puerto Rico, geographic areas where more than 50 percent of new HIV diagnoses occurred in 2016 and 2017, as well as the seven states with a substantial rural HIV burden.

Finally, as she is the most influential healthcare policymaker in the U.S. per Modern Healthcare, take a gander at CMS Administrator Seema Verma’s speech to the annual CMS quality conference.

Our firm is closely monitoring the impacts of COVID-19. Effective 3/16/20, Ermer & Suter has implemented telework for all of our staff to encourage social distancing and help contain the virus. We remain fully operational and are readily available from our telework locations with no change in telephone numbers or email addresses.